On March 17, 2017, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson issued a diplomatic cable instructing consular officials around the world to immediately increase the screening of applicants for all types of visas to the United States.
The cable is the first step in implementing President Trump’s “Presidential Memorandum on Implementing Heightened Screening and Vetting of Applications for Visas and Other Immigration Benefits,” which was issued earlier this month alongside his revised travel ban. While courts have enjoined portions of the revised travel ban, the president’s directives to the Department of State and other agencies contained in the Presidential Memorandum remain unaffected.
Citing long-standing procedures, the cable impresses upon consular officials that they should not hesitate in refusing visas, that they should explore all available leads and that they should take any precautionary action permissible under an applicable ground for inadmissibility. This instruction may incentivize consular officials to conduct lengthier interviews, refer applicants for higher-level scrutiny or deny applications – potentially causing increased delays and denials.
In what appears to be a new directive, the cable requires each consular post to identify “populations warranting increased scrutiny.” The cable also directs that, thereafter, if a consular officer identifies an applicant as part of that population set, the officer must consider referring the applicant for high-level security screening, even if the applicant is otherwise eligible for the visa. The cable does not provide guidance as to factors indicating a population that warrants increased scrutiny and, thus, leaves room for the consulates to use broad factors such as nationality or religion in identifying a population set. Because each post determines the population sets without any apparent coordination between embassies, it is possible that targeted groups may vary by country.
The cable also initiates a protocol for mandatory social media review for any applicant that has been present in an ISIS-controlled territory. Prior to this directive, social media reviews were up to the discretion of the interviewing officer. Accordingly, applicants meeting this criterion should anticipate delays resulting from what may become a backlog of social media reviews. In addition to a social media review, Iraqi nationals who were present in an ISIS-controlled territory (with some specified exceptions) must also undergo a high-level security review that extends beyond the typical interview and will likely result in even further delay.
The cable, however, limits consular officers to conducting 120 visa interviews per day, which was the average quantity prior to the cable. So, it is unclear if the length of a typical visa interview will increase. Nevertheless, the cable also acknowledges that interview appointments may become backlogged.
The cable notes that the foregoing directives are “preliminary measures” and that additional screening will be forthcoming pursuant to the latest executive order. Additional measures that may be implemented shortly could include a set of questions regarding the applicant’s travel history, addresses and work history for the past 15 years, and all phone numbers, email addresses and social media handles used by the applicant in the past five years. These additional measures were outlined in a prior cable from the Department of State to the consulates, but have been put on hold pending authorization from the U.S. Office of Management and Budget.
By: Camiel Becker and Clare Bienvenu